Planning isn’t something that comes naturally to me. In fact, I actively dislike even the idea of making a plan to do something.
Whenever I get a flash of great inspiration to do something, I want to do it right away. _”Diet starts today”_: I’d better go and buy all of the salad the supermarket has; _”My posture is bad”_: I’ll stop what I’m doing and follow YouTube instructional videos all afternoon. _”I want to make my team happier at LinguaLift”_: I’ll email them and check if they’re happy. There’s something really satisfying about scratching an itch with a quick fix, but it rarely leads to long-term results, and certainly won’t form a great habit. I’m still overweight, I slouch when I work, and… well I think the team is happy!
Even though I know the benefits of a language study plan, and I personally recommend our students at LinguaLift to use one, I have to admit that I haven’t always been good at making, or sticking to them in the past. That was until my final law exams at Oxford University.
I had a total of nine exams in eleven days covering every topic that I had learned in the previous three years. There was no chance of a retake. Whether I were to pass or fail would depend solely on the results of my final exams. It was the most pressure I’ve ever felt in my life. And I felt this pressure many months before exam season started.
Rather than get overwhelmed, I committed to turning that feeling of pressure and anxiety into motivation. I created a language study plan to enable me to memorize over 1,000 legal cases, the opinions of over 350 legal articles, over 100 quotes from judges, and the important sections of about 50 major statutes, across nine different areas of law, not to mention managing to regurgitate them over the course of a high-pressure fortnight.
Here’s how I created a language study plan, and what I learned along the way.
Be Realistic About Your Language Study Plan
The biggest mistake you can make is to be overambitious. “Shoot for the moon, and even if you miss you’ll land among the stars”, they say. If that were NASA’s official space exploration policy, they’d struggle to get recruits—it’s complete nonsense. Have a specific and achievable target in mind. Understand the risks and limitations in achieving that target. Then, get to it.
While I could have re-learned every topic I ever studied (or was supposed to have studied), and prepare for every topic and question that could have come up in my papers, I rather spent time looking through past papers and looked for trends.
It’s important to note that I wasn’t looking for trends to make a prediction about the rotation of specific questions. I wasn’t stupid enough to think that I could predict what would appear on the paper. Rather, I looked for trends in the way that subjects and topics were treated.
For example, in the Contract Law paper, it was obvious that the notions of ‘offer & acceptance’ would be essential to know in detail, because they formed a major part of many question types in the exam paper year on year. However, the topic of ‘unilateral mistake’ featured rarely, and when it did, it was usually a discrete topic of its own, that could be avoided if I answered other questions instead.
Assess your priorities and plan accordingly
With this approach, I could allocate more time to studying certain topics in depth, and when it came to exam time, I was able to answer them with more flair and confidence than if I had a good knowledge of every topic. Make an assessment of your learning priorities, and make your language study plan according to what you find most appropriate to focus on. Less is absolutely more, and you should probably underestimate your ability to make rapid progress with the language in the very early stages.
It’s not just being realistic about your goal, you also need to be realistic about the time and other constraints that will influence your path to that goal. Sure, you may get home from work at 7 pm and go to bed at midnight every day. But that doesn’t mean that you’ve got 25 hours of study time available in the evenings of a working week.
You’ll be tired on some days. You’ll have other hobbies, family commitments, attention-pullers, impromptu plans. Not to mention days when you just don’t feel like studying. More realistic is you’d be able to put in a couple of hours at most a few times a week, plus whatever you can do at the weekend.
Don’t get in over your head
I had the advantage of being a student at the time of taking my final exams. But that didn’t mean that I was expecting myself to work from morning until night every day. It would be totally unachievable. Rather, I appreciated that I had other draws on my time, such as running my business and pursuing my hobbies. Not to mention socializing, trips home, and any unexpected events such as illness. I’m sure as a result of this balanced approach I improved the quality of my study, too.
Break Down the Task
Once you’ve delineated the scope of your tasks within your language study plan, break it down into discrete pieces. The goal at this stage is to make sure that when you actually launch into a study session, your mind is focused only on the process of studying. Not choosing what to study, or which resource is best.
To do this, you want to make sure that you’re specific enough such that it’s immediately clear when you come back to the language study plan what you’re supposed to do, but not so specific that you restrict yourself from being creative when you actually study.
See how it’s done
If you’re learning French, a good task would be ‘être verbs conjugation’; ‘verb conjugation’ alone is too general, and ‘être in the passé composé’ may be too specific down the line. A Japanese learner probably shouldn’t set aside Wednesday mornings for ‘kanji’, but rather ‘kanji stroke order and writing’. ‘One textbook page’ is a great learning objective if you’re following a textbook that you like that’s suited for self-study.
The advantage of this approach is you’re both focusing on your short-term learning goals, including making sure that you’re covering all of the elements of your learning that you want to cover, but allowing yourself to influence what you’re doing on a daily basis according to what’s interesting and relevant to you that day. You’re looking to give yourself the opportunity to be able to launch right into your study without thinking. But you also don’t want to limit yourself to a plan so prescribed that you lose interest in the moment.
Give Yourself a Goal
My goal was determined for me. I had to revise and be comfortable with a sufficient amount of law before my first exam. Having that goal gave my study and routine a huge amount of focus.
When learning a language, which is theoretically a never-ending pursuit (even natives shouldn’t stop improving their mastery of their mother tongue), it’s important to break this huge task into easily-verifiable checkpoints. Exams are a good way to do this. As are time-sensitive deadlines, like a trip to the country or a speech contest. Whatever you choose, it’s crucial to keep yourself accountable to some kind of deadline, even if it’s as simple as committing to write an entry on a certain topic and posting it to the iTalki Notebook by a certain date, or finishing a level of your favorite language learning software.
Put it on Paper
Once you’ve got an idea of the kind of learning that you want to do, when you want to get that done by, and know what kind of time slots you have to do it, the final step is putting it together in one place.
An easy way to do this is to split the time you have available into 20-minute slots. Put your various tasks into these slots in a way that you think is going to be most easily achievable. In addition, you should keep a third of your slots reserved exclusively for reviewing old material. You should ideally mark these by topic and learning objective, too.
Not just for language study
Although the document is called a ‘study plan’, it shouldn’t only cover the study that you plan to be doing. I included breaks, study preparation, and other responsibilities and obligations as part of the plan. This helped me identify the most suitable time slots for the various topics and learning approaches I had decided on.
If I’d go drinking or clubbing on a Friday night, I’d prepare a lighter topic or revision just before. My mind may well be elsewhere, and I wouldn’t want the pull of an ice-cold glass of cider to stop an intense study session about a new topic. Likewise, I happen to be very alert immediately after having lunch. So I’d make sure that I’d use that time well to tackle the difficult stuff.
I hated the study of land law. And can’t think of a less interesting use of the English language than the Law and Property Act 1925. I front-loaded a lot of my land law study, to get it out of the way, knowing that I’d look forward to reading books on legal philosophy far more than understanding, _inter alia_ when an easement can be implied rather than created by deed. (I genuinely think there is something wrong with you if you are a law student that espouses any other opinion).
Put the Language Study Plan Into Action
This is the hard part! Now you’ve got your study plan, all that’s left is to actually use it. Make sure that you make using it as easy as you possibly can. If it helps you to put specific entries into your digital calendar or paper diary then do so. Some people like to share it with people that can hold them accountable, such as study partners or personal coaches.
At LinguaLift, we’ll gladly keep a copy of your plan, and check up on you at regular intervals to make sure that you’re sticking to it. I liked to print out copies of my plan and put them in places I’d most likely find them. Folded up and placed in my textbooks, taped onto my desk, stuck on the back of my toilet door! It gave me a sense of positioning and constantly reminded me of my day ahead.
When things don’t go according to plan…
Putting the plan into action doesn’t mean sticking to it come what may. There will inevitably be moments when you’ve realized that your plan is unfollowable. The correct response is to make an appropriate change, and then try your hardest to stick to it.
Once you start using your language study plan, it evolves into being a study routine, and as such, you should expect that it should have a certain degree of malleability. When you make good progress in certain areas, you can simply swap your previous routine (for example of waking up in the morning and writing out the Russian alphabet once) to another (waking up and doing press-ups while practicing your numbers in Russian).
As with all things, the value that you get out of your study plan will only be as good as you are prepared to commit to it. So, if this article has inspired you to create a study plan, then by all means, do it! Scratch that itch to plan… then stick to it!
Author’s bio: Ollie Capehorn (@ocapehorn) is the Co-Founder of LinguaLift, an online Japanese language school where learners enjoy the flexibility of a self-taught curriculum with the guidance of helpful study coaches. Read his post on planning study sessions with a tutor for more inspiration.
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